The real NHL may be preparing to take a season-long hiatus, but EA's venerable NHL series returns in September with NHL 2005. EA dropped by today to show us the latest version of the game, and, judging by what we saw, the game seems to address a number of imbalanced features found in last year's version.
First and foremost, NHL 2005's on-ice game is all about creating space--and scoring opportunities--in the offensive zone. Last year's version had a problem with offensive teammates bunching up in front of the net, which limited passing opportunities and scoring chances. By more effectively spreading out and covering the ice, your teammates now tend to be more available for open passes and one-timers.
A handy feature added this year is the ability to take control of an up-ice player when in control of the puck. With a simple button press, you can switch control to the pass-receiving player, get him in position, and then have the puck controller make the pass. This allows for much more-accurate setups for both attacking passes and one-timers.
The addition of a wraparound move is another authentic touch, and while we weren't able to notch a wraparound goal in our limited time with the game, it's nice to have such an integral hockey play as part of your offensive arsenal. Assigning the slap shot and the wrister to separate controls, which represent additional features in this year's game, provides another layer of control when it comes to burying the biscuit.
NHL 2005's new gameplay tweaks aren't just on the scoring side of the puck, however. Playing as a defenseman, you can now call for support during a breakout situation, effectively creating double-team opportunities on the fly, a useful technique when you've got a speedy Martin St. Louis bearing down on your goalie. The defensive artificial intelligence has been tweaked for the better this year as well. We saw one instance where the defensive AI broke up a pass by lifting up the opposing teammate's stick instead of going the harsher route by laying him out (and possibly drawing a penalty in the process).
As any fan will tell you, hockey games are often decided during face-offs. NHL 2005 has improved this aspect of the game by giving gamers a number of face-off sets to choose from before the ref drops the puck. You can choose an aggressive set, with only one defender behind the center (which may present the opposition with a chance for an easy breakaway), or you can protect a lead late in the game with a more conservative face-off set. The types of available face-off alignments are dependent on your position on the ice.
The animation and graphics have benefited from an upgrade in NHL 2005 too. In addition to authentic arenas and 3D crowds, the on-ice animations have taken a big step forward. We saw some very cool-looking tripping animations where a player's arms flailed as he struggled to retain his balance, as well as players that jabbed and jostled each other as they fought for position in front of the net. One especially cool animation featured a Calgary Flames forward who was positioned squarely in front of the opposing goalie, batting a puck in midair and hitting twine.
Body size has an effect on the checking animations. A smaller forward checking a defenseman nearly twice his size might result in the checking player falling on his tail or merely bouncing off his opponent. Finally, the faces and body types of players and coaches are more accurate this time around, meaning the Flyers' rotund coach Ken Hitchcock no longer has the same lean physique as the Thrashers' headman Bob Hartley.
Of all NHL 2005's features, the dynasty mode seems to have gone through the biggest overhaul this year. According to EA, players had issues with some of the franchise features in last year's game, and many of the adjustments this year are in direct response to those comments. Moving forward with their "RPG-like" approach to the dynasty mode, players can sign on as a general manager for any NHL team. The difference this year, however, is that each team owner defines "success" differently. These differing priorities are organized into three aspects--team, profit, and ambition--with each team owner placing a differing level of importance on each aspect. The owner of the Dallas Stars, for example, has a high "team" priority rating, meaning he places a high value on team development and fan loyalty; however, the owner of the Chicago Blackhawks is most concerned with profit--that is, getting butts into the seats and filling his coffers. Teams such as Colorado and Detroit place high importance on ambition, or looking to drive far into the playoffs right away.
In addition, each team owner has specific goals he is looking for you, as GM, to accomplish, based on the team priorities. A team with high ambition, for example, might ask you to have a player in contention for the Maurice Richard trophy (awarded to the top goal-scorer of the year).
These owner-designated priorities, coupled with your own personally chosen GM style, provide a recipe for how you should approach your season. If you're a fan of managing team budgets and making salary cap room, a team like the Blackhawks--where money is the top priority--is for you. If you're looking to take a team to the cup in your first year, however, it's probably best to stick with a proven commodity, such as the Wings or the Avalanche. While these predetermined priorities seem a bit rigid at first, EA assured us that if you are successful in meeting the goals in a single season, the next year's priorities will change accordingly, meaning you won't be stuck spending all your time tweaking ticket prices at the behest of William Wirtz, but rather, you'll be looking to aim for a playoff appearance.
Fortunately, you have an upgrade budget you can use in your quest for not only the Stanley Cup, but also for the appeasement of the boss. Upgrades are an important component of franchise success and can affect more than just your play on the ice. In fact, EA made a point to note that upgrading only your on-the-ice dynasty attributes does not necessarily guarantee success. In fact, there are tangible benefits to purchasing some of the front-office attributes upgrades, such as assistant coaching (which increases the chance of a trade being accepted) or medical staff (decreases injury length).
Tune in to any NHL broadcast and you'll hear tons of talk about team chemistry--especially chemistry within specific scoring and defensive lines. NHL 2005 has taken this idea into account this year with a very cool chemistry rating that's assigned to each line you put out on the ice. A high line-chemistry rating means an added bonus for each player in the line, while a line with no chemistry could result in a ratings penalty. The rating is determined by more than just the ratings of the individual players that comprise the lines but also by the skill set and style of play (such as playmaker, scorer, or grinder). Running out three superstar scorers on the same line, while tempting in a dream team sort of way, will likely result in a low chemistry rating and subsequent penalties for all players involved. For best results, choose complementary players to find that ideal mix of talent and player type to create scoring opportunities on the ice.
If you're tired of five-on-five puck action, NHL 2005 provides a fun diversion in its "Free4All" mode, a multiplayer party game based around scoring as quickly and as often as possible. This mode pits up to four players against one another and a randomly chosen NHL goalie. Free4All includes two modes: Score Drive, where the winner is the first player to score five, 10, or 15 goals, and On the Clock, where the player with the most goals after a set amount of time (two, five, or 10 minutes) prevails. Speed, scoring, and big hits are the order of the day in this mode, which should appeal to hockey beginners (and their girlfriends). Alas, this mode is not online this year, but we're hopeful for next year's version.
With the real NHL ready to thumb its nose at puck fans, it's comforting to know we'll still have console hockey to keep us warm this winter. NHL 2005 is shaping up to be a solid effort from EA. Look for a full review of the game when it ships in late September.